Friday, August 16, 2013

TOP STORY >> Panel to visit Jacksonville VA home site

Leader staff writer

A 22-member task force that will recommend whether or not Jacksonville is selected as the site for a new veterans’ home will visit the proposed location at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Alderman Mary Twitty asked at Thursday night’s council meeting for volunteers to show up at about 10 a.m. to place flags on the site.

The city of Jacksonville sent in a proposal under the flag of the chamber of commerce offering the state about 60 acres of land at General Samuels and Swift roads.

Jacksonville, along with Benton, Fort Smith and Russellville, made the cut from 61 properties offered to the state for the $25 million facility.

The state has applied for a federal $18.1 million matching grant to construct the facility, while Arkansas lawmakers have agreed to use $7.5 million in surplus funds to match the grant.

The state has only one veterans’ home in the state and that’s in Fayetteville and can hold up to 100 residents. The state’s other home, in Little Rock, was closed more than a year ago because of abuse and mismanagement.

Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), head of the Veterans’ Home Task Force, said the group would visit Fort Smith (Fort Chaffee) and Benton on Monday and then Jacksonville and Russellville on Wednesday. A decision, she said, will be made by the end of the month and forwarded to the legislature for final consideration.

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, drumming up support for the task force to pick Jacksonville, issued a proclamation pledging “its full support with the city of Jacksonville to cooperate with the Arkansas Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Legislative Veterans’ Task Force to initiate action to implement this project.”

The chamber, in its resolution, cited the fact that the city raised $5 million to help construct the $14 million University Education Center that now houses six colleges under one roof and is located on military property at the intersection of Hwy. 67/167 and Vandenberg Boulevard. The chamber said the community also assisted with the establishment of Flightline Academy, a charter school on base, to enhance educational opportunities there.

The Cabot Chamber of Commerce also issued a statement supporting Jacksonville as the site to pick.

English said the task force has to treat building the veterans’ home like a business rather than just an emotional project because legislators want it to be sustainable.

A three-member task force committee narrowed down the choices earlier this month. English said they worked individually, independently of each other, and each came up with the same four choices.

The criteria for the site specify it must be at least 20 acres of level land zoned for residential or light commercial use, have utilities, easy public access and be near motels, hospitals, restaurants, shopping and public transportation. The task force would also prefer it to be undeveloped and free.

In all four proposals, the land site will be donated to the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs to build the facility, which could house about 100 veterans.

“We are very excited,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said. “We are the perfect fit. I feel we have an exceptional place that exceeds what the VA wants,” he added.

Amy Mattison, who heads the chamber of commerce, said Tuesday, “We are a strong military town. Look at Little Rock Air Force Base, look at the joint-education center, this will complete the circle.”

The Jacksonville parcel is close to the air base, the hospitals, shopping and eateries. The Jacksonville site is mostly timberland, and at one time was home to a chemical faculty. It does have utilities and North Metro Medical Center is just a mile away.

The mayor said the city-chamber proposal to donate the land is the right thing to do. “We did it in 1954 to bring in Little Rock Air Force Base and would like to have history repeat itself,” he said.

Fletcher said, “We think we’ve got the best site. It’s a very centralized location with easy access. I can’t think of a better place.”